U.S.-North Korea Relations: Any Progress on Nonproliferation Efforts?
Mike Mullen and Victor Cha discuss the status of U.S.-North Korea relations, nuclear security, and non-proliferation one and a half year's after the task force report was released.
For further reading, please see the CFR Backgrounders “North Korea’s Military Capabilities” and “What to Know About the Sanctions on North Korea,” and the CFR Task Force report page.
LAIPSON: Good afternoon. I’d like to welcome you all to today’s Paul C. Warnke lectureship on international security. The title of today’s session is “U.S.-North Korean Relations: Any Progress on Nonproliferation Efforts?” So today is a special event because the Paul Warnke Lecture is an annual event, but today we decided instead of a single lecturer, that we’d have this outstanding panel to talk about an issue that is very preoccupying and perhaps the number one national security challenge for the Trump administration. So we’ll have a wonderful conversation with Mike Mullen and Victor Cha. I’m Ellen Laipson. I direct the International Security Program at George Mason Schar School of Policy and Government. And I’m moderating today. And our lecture series—we’re very delighted to have lectures of the Warnke family join us today, and all the donors that have made this special event possible.
As you know, I think our two speakers are well known. We have Admiral Mike Mullen, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is currently the president and chief executive officer of MGM Consulting, and was the co-chair of a 2016 Council on Foreign Relations Task Force report A Sharper Choice on North Korea. So we will ask him to update and revise that—the judgements of that report. Victor Cha is currently the senior advisor and Korea chair at CSIS. He is the Korea foundation chair in government in international affairs at Georgetown University. He was a member of that Council Task Force and has recently written an article in Foreign Affairs that brings us up to date on his own thinking on Korea. And as many people know, he was tantalizingly close to being the American ambassador to South Korea. (Laughter.)
So we’re going to start our conversation with a kind of top-down look. I’ve asked both Victor and Admiral Mullen to answer this question: On the continuum from war to peace, with coercive diplomacy, negotiations, nonproliferation progress, along the points of the continuum, how would you characterize the current moment? Victor Cha, would you like to go first?
CHA: Well, thanks, Ellen. And it’s a pleasure to be here and to be part of this lecture. On the—on that particular question, I feel like we’re certainly not where we thought we would be in December. In December of last year, before the Olympics in South Korea, I think many people were concerned that we’d have a temporary pause during the Olympics—both the winter Olympics in February and then Paralympics in March—but that once U.S.-ROK annual military exercises restarted in April that the North Would responds and we’d be in the cycle of provocation.
That’s clearly not where we are today. Now we’re in a spring of summit diplomacy in Asia. The North and South Korean leaders, Prime Minister Abe is coming to Mar-a-Lago next week, the North Korean leader went to China next week, or a little over a week ago. And then, of course, the big meeting between President Trump and the North Korean leaders. So I certainly think that today we’re in a different place, although the place we are today is not without its own set of risks.
LAIPSON: Thank you.
MULLEN: If I could actually just pick up on what Victor said in terms of prognosticating what’s going to happen in the next six months, I think it’s pretty tough to figure that out. There is—certainly and over the course of the last year—a tremendous amount of uncertainty. And the uncertainty that was—that existed, with respect in particular in the case of Kim Jong-un and North Korea not knowing a lot what he would do, et cetera, I think was added to significantly by the uncertainty of what the United States of America was going to do. And I think that’s the sort of entering equation—or the entering—the entry point with respect to these negotiations.
I’ve said on a couple of occasions now, you know, next month’s a huge month for us, when you look at what may or may not happen with the Iran deal, what may or may not happen with negotiations. There is a lot on the table. As best I can tell—and I think it’s important that people understand I’m not on the inside. I don’t have—you know, I don’t have the kind of information, obviously, that I used to have when I was in a decision-making position or making a recommendation. So there’s a lot that I don’t think I do know, but we clearly are on a very fast path here in both cases—Iran and North Korea—to bring nuclear weapons into play, much more so than I thought was possible a year ago.
And in that regard, I think it’s much more dangerous. I think the risks—the risk is way up. And, as I was taught as a—you know, a young midshipman, you know, high risk can bring high reward. But at the same time, it can also bring a significant downside. So I think that’s where we are. And I don’t—honestly, I don’t know—I don’t know if anybody knows, but I certainly don’t know what’s going to happen over the course of the next 60 days, except it is an incredibly, I think, critical, dangerous, fragile time.
LAIPSON: So while we’re trying to, you know, calibrate carefully that really it’s impossible to make any strong predictions, I wonder, Victor, knowing from your own experience at the NSC and elsewhere, and how—the uncertainty about the preparations for the summit—how would you rank the odds that the summit will take place? Do you think there’s any prospect that either or both of the parties will decide to hit the pause button?
CHA: Well, I think it was a surprise to everyone when the U.S. president agreed to meet with the North Korean leader by May, which I think everyone takes to mean by the end of May. The—as Admiral Mullen said, these sorts of summits, when they take place, they can be highly rewarding. Or, if they fail, they are extremely risky, especially when you don’t have a months-long negotiating process leading up to this meeting.
To me, one of the biggest indicators of whether this meeting will take place, or whether it will be postponed will be the inter-Korean summit that takes place at the end of this month, because I would imagine that coming out of that meeting the South Korean president will want to brief the American president on how that meeting went, and probably offer recommendation about whether we should go forward, things look good, you know, the light is green, or whether it’s yellow, or whether it’s even red.
Now, as Admiral Mullen said, we’re all just guessing here, because this is a highly unusual situation. But if I had to pick one event, it would be probably them meeting that takes place between the North and the South Korean leaders.
LAIPSON: Admiral Mullen, in the task force there was a lot of discussion about, you know, deterrence and the coercive signaling that takes place by the presence of U.S. military force in the region, and by our relationship with Japan and South Korea and the allied activities. Are you—how would you—if you were advising the president today, and with the anticipation of a summit within six to 10 weeks, whenever it may occur, what—how would you calibrate the signals that are sent through our security presence and our security relationships in the runup to the summit?
MULLEN: Well, I’d want them to be strong, and to leave little room for doubt about the commitment to security in that part of the world. I’ve been a little bit taken aback. The exercises resumed, and there really wasn’t much that happened with that. And if I were in my previous job, at least I would have some insight into the preparations for, and then recommendations would be tied to, you know, how much we should do or not do based on what was actually going on getting ready. I mean, one of the, you know, big concerns I had—Victor and I were talking earlier. And I just said, well, so how long does it take to get ready for a summit? You know, well, and he said, well, with an ally typically it’s three months.
I mean, think about this. Think about this one and you want to have—(laughs)—you typically, to the degree you can either control it, you want to know the outcome before you ever have a summit, and then you sort of plan to that. And how much of that kind of work has gone on to this point? I’m not—I’m not really sure. So the stakes are high. I mean, on the one hand—one of the things we talked about in the report was, you got to move China. Or, China’s got to move. And China has moved. However you want to—whoever you want to get credit to, but it’s very clear that President Trump’s position has moved Xi Jinping, one, a tougher enforcement of the sanctions. And I think China’s got almost complete control over the process, if you will, by the amount of money that flows or doesn’t flow across that border.
And then secondly, the visit the other day by Kim Jong-un. All of a sudden, China clearly—at least the signal to me—is they want to be in the game. And from my perspective, that’s just fine. I think China’s a hugely important player. One of the things we tried to say in that study was that the United States and China have to figure out a way to play here. To me, with the right—for the right outcome, it doesn’t make any difference who leads.
The other thing, tied to the inter-Korean summit here that we talked about in that report is, it’s possible that South Korea’s in a better position to lead in this than they have been in the past, and certainly amongst all of us. And again, I have no problem with somebody stepping forward to do—to do that, which President Moon clearly has—and make that a part of what I hope would be a—you know, a constructive outcome.
LAIPSON: So, but just on the security question, how—you both participated in the six-party talks and have been involved in these things, of whether signals that we may want to send in an adversarial way to the North Koreans also send signals to China. So how do you balance what the Chinese may desire in terms of an American military presence in the region, the status of our alliances with Japan and Korea, with trying to resolve this particular problem of North Korea? Are there tradeoffs there that are particularly tricky for diplomats to think about?
CHA: So, Ellen, I think that we don’t want our North Korea policy to be undertaken or executed at the expense of our broader Asia policy. And sometimes if we get stuck in the tactics of a negotiation with North Korea, we tend to lose sight of that broader objective, which is that those things have to be consistent. We used to always say that our—that our North Korea policy doesn’t start with North Korea. It starts with our allies. And that the allies have to be in coordination and agree on a common front, and ideally as well as China, right? So I think that’s an important thing as we think about going forward to this—the U.S.-North Korea summit, is that a summit in and of itself is not a strategy. And a summit without a strategy is very dangerous.
And so for that reasons, it’s important for the United States, the allies, South Korea, and Japan—as well as China—coordinate on what we are looking at in terms of what we seek from the North Koreans at this meeting, and also the difficult question—perhaps the harder question—of what we’re willing to give in order to get the things we want from the North Koreans, because that—I don’t think there’s any disagreement about what we want from North Korea. We want them to give up their nuclear weapons. The hard part to coordinate among allies and with China is what we’re going to be giving—what we’re going to be willing to give to get that from the North.
LAIPSON: Did you feel that there were any tradeoffs between a military dialogue with China more broadly about the region, versus the military’s—you know, the use of the military as one of the components of our strategy towards North Korea?
MULLEN: Actually, I’ve thought about this a little differently. I suppose that is true. But my other thought is—and this goes against a lot of—a lot of views to the contrary—is I am willing to denuclearize that peninsula, to eliminate the possibility of nuclear war, the use of nuclear weapons in that region. I’m willing to trade trade with China to make it happen. I’m willing to give up whatever that piece would be of trade and pay that price—which I think would be far less by any measure than what—the price we’d have to pay if there was some kind of nuclear war breakout or use of nuclear weapons. To the degree—and then I’ll go back to the military—to the degree that there are military either consolidations or compromises, I’m certainly willing to have that discussion. But I think Victor’s point is really critical as well. We need to do this with our allies and not unilaterally.
LAIPSON: So I see Scott Snyder is here. Scott runs the Korea program here at the Council. And his latest book has in the title Autonomy or Alliance, and how the South Koreans, and I think we could say for the Japanese as well, how they achieve greater independence and autonomy as security actors, and still revalidate and remain very devoted to the alliance with the United States. Do you see any kind of new dynamics in how—sort of our expectations of the roles that Japan and the Republic of Korea would play in a negotiating process? Has it changed at all from the six-party talk period?
CHA: I think it has, in a couple of respects. I think in one respect the—as both of you have already suggested, the South Koreans appear to be, I don’t know if I’d say in the lead, but they clearly appear to be the engine of a lot of this diplomacy. Again, if we go back to the—to last December, when all of us thought this was going to be really bad in 2018, the South Koreans were really working very hard, using the Olympics, working behind the scenes, playing telephone tag between all parties trying to get something going. And so in that sense they’ve taken on a big responsibility here.
The other is that in the past the North Koreans were not willing to talk to the South Koreans about nuclear weapons or denuclearization. In fact, any time the South Koreans raised it in a meeting, the North Koreans would either walk out, or they’d say bathroom break, or they would just—they didn’t want to talk about it. They said, that’s something we’ll talk about with the United States. But it appears, at least, that the South Korean president is carrying messages back and forth, suggesting that the North Koreans are—have had conversations with the South, and are inclined to denuclearize the entire Korean Peninsula, which is a loaded phrase in and of itself. But there’s that. So I think in that sense—that sense there’s been a larger role.
I would say the other thing is that, you know, this—I was in a different meeting a couple of weeks ago with a bunch of academics where we were trying to understand the new types of hedging behavior by allies under the Trump administration. And I was supposed to look at Asia. In my case I said for Asia, you know, I think there’s some degree of hedging with regard to China. But that’s not what allies are doing. Allies are not hedging against the United States. What they’re doing is practicing autonomy and then giving all the credit to President Trump. (Laughter.)
So when—you’ll remember when we saw this extraordinary situation where the national security advisor of a foreign country came out in front of the West Wing and announced to the world that the U.S. president had committed to a meeting with the North Koreans. Just an extraordinary picture in and of itself. The first five minutes of his speech was about how President Trump is the person to thank for all this diplomacy that is taking place. So in that sense, I feel like allies—at least allies in Asia—are not hedging, like in the traditional hedging sense. But they are practicing a degree of autonomy. But at the same time, holding the president really close and giving him all the credit for that.
LAIPSON: Japan’s role? Do you see any change in how well we can coordinate with Japan over options for North Korea? Has that changed since your task force, or?
MULLEN: Well, I think it’s very—it’s clear, certainly from a distance, that President Trump and Prime Minister Abe have a good relationship. Victor mentioned prime minister’s coming this week. I think that’s really important in terms of—that has a very positive effect down the chain, if you will. I know that Secretary Mattis has visited and been visited by his counterparts, and that that relationship is very close as well—all of which I am very much encouraged by in terms of, you know, how we move forward.
And again, I think it reinforces the United States’ commitment to the region. And that’s been—that has been, you know, up and down in recent years. There have been leaders in more than one region of the world that wondered whether we were committed or not. Certainly, from a standpoint, with respect to both South Korea and Japan, and actually our other friends in that area, feedback I get is that, you know, they are comforted by the fact that from a defense standpoint or a security standpoint that we’re there.
LAIPSON: So let’s focus on Kim and how does this crisis—how is this crisis playing from his perspective. Do you think that he’s reasonably confident that he knows what his game plan is? Or do you think he is reacting to pressures that he’s feeling? How would you interpret the trip to China? Was that—did that strengthen his hand? Or did that demonstrate that he’s on a short leash to Beijing? What does it look like from his side of the story?
CHA: So I think it is—I think, as your question almost suggests, that it is a combination of both incentives, opportunities that they see, and pressure that is bringing him to this point. On the pressure side, you know, this all started with a New Year’s speech that the North Korean leader gave, in which he made some non-negative reference to the Winter Olympics in South Korea. That’s how—we were talking about signaling, that’s sort of where the signaling started. And this, you know, eventually, as you all know, led to the delegation coming and the Olympics.
But I think my own view is, what drove that was a combination of things. First, I do think that they were feeling—they are feeling the pressure of sanctions. This, the so-called pressure campaign or the administration calls it maximum pressure, or max pressure campaign, has gotten to the point now where we have 10 U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea. I think at least six executive authorities that the administration has. And we were in government when—over 10 years ago, when we did the initial pressure campaign against North Korea, and what is available to the administration now is just—you can’t even compare. They have so much more available, to the point where now almost 100 percent of North Korea’s external freight is now sanctioned by U.N. Security Council resolutions.
And we’ve heard anecdotally that from NGOs that commodity prices have gone up in North Korea, and the price of rice, the price of gas, all these other things. So I think they’re definitely feeling that pressure, and that has brought them back. The other is I think unpredictability of the administration. I mean, there was a lot of talk in past months about possible military action. I think the North—that registered. I think that affected them. And then finally, I also think that they probably calculated that they could take a pause in their testing, you know, that they have already announced that they’re a nuclear weapon state. They’ve already announced that they feel they can threaten the entire United States with nuclear ballistic missiles. And they probably felt that they have reached the point where there are other things they may need to do, but they don’t need to do it right now.
And then on the opportunity side, the only thing I’ll say is that, you know, I think the North Koreans have been waiting for this meeting for four decades, right? The opportunity to meet the U.S. president as a nuclear weapon state, even if the discussion on the table is about denuclearization. I think they have been seeking this meeting and seeking the status of this meeting for a long time. So just the meeting in and of itself, I think the North Koreans will consider a victory.
LAIPSON: Well, that brings us to the key word that’s in the title of today’s conversation. You know, what are achievable denuclearization goals? And if the summit occurs and, in theory, the world denuclearization is spoken, but with no expectations of any short to medium-term steps to implement it, what does the U.S. do next? You know, if the summit occurs and yet there isn’t really a game plan for denuclearization, what’s our next move? So what are—what do you think are plausible and achievable denuclearization goals for the peninsula? Is the rhetoric of total denuclearization the right approach to take? Or are there some, you know, downsides to setting a goal that seems very, very far away?
MULLEN: Well, I’m one who believes it had to be denuclearization. I’m not a contain them guy, because I worry that with nuclear weapons and with a nuclear state, you know, for a sustained period of time, that the South Koreans will be asking themselves: Should I do this? The Japanese will be asking themselves the same thing, with some indications—certainly based on what I’ve seen publicly—that they’re thinking about it anyway. So you end up nuclearization the region. And it’s the same logic, quite frankly, for me, that works with Iran. That if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, so we end up proliferating, if you will, in two regions of the world the most devastating weapons that man has ever put on Earth.
In that regard, that has to be the outcome. Now, Victor’s much smarter on this than I in terms of what the language means, but the current language that—as I understand it—that Kim Jong-un has used is similar to language that’s been used in the past, which is long term, which is glad to denuclearization. What you don’t—and I think we need to pull these out—is what you don’t—what we don’t talk about is all the steps that have to be taken to get to that point to satisfy him to the point where he would actually denuclearize the peninsula. That’s a really important part of the discussion. How much of that gets woven into the negotiations?
And then outcomes. I mean, leaders don’t—they don’t have these summits so that they can’t have outcomes. If we don’t have outcomes, it’s hard for me—it’s—I don’t know where it goes. Certainly it’s—there’s—it’s got to be a downside. And I hope the downside isn’t, you know, edging closer to conflict.
LAIPSON: That was the risk that you talked about, a summit that isn’t prepared sufficiently.
CHA: Right. Yeah, yeah, because we all know when you ask your president to get into a negotiation, you usually want him or her to get in at the end, to close it, to sort of take it over the finish line, not at the beginning, for obvious reasons. So on the denuclearization piece, so as someone who used to do these negotiations, this is going to sound really sort of pedantic to some of you, but you look for these little things that try to show that the—your counterpart is actually genuinely interested in negotiation, or at least genuinely interested in getting back to where you thought they should have been 10 years ago. (Laughs.)
So as the admiral said, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, for any of us who’ve looked at this or negotiated this, means absolutely nothing, right? Perhaps that’s too strong a phrase, but what it means in the broader context is North Korea would be ready to give its nuclear weapons if U.S. hostile policy ended. U.S. hostile policy is defined as our alliances in Asia, our nuclear umbrella, our extended deterrence, and then our ground troops on the peninsula.
If, again as a former negotiator, the phrase that I would see clarification on is whether North Korea would agree to what they agreed to in September of 2005, which was not just denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula—and I see some former negotiators out here—it is that the commitment in writing that North Korea would abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs. That is a different phrasing from this very broad denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
It was conveyed in a newspaper today that the North Koreans have also said—Kim Jong-un apparently said that a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula was the dying wish of his father, which, again, may sound nice on paper, but that’s exactly what his father said about his grandfather—(laughter)—when the last two nuclear agreements were both found to be dysfunctional. So you know, I think looking for some of those points of clarification. I mean, the broader outlines of what a denuclearization agreement should look like I think is—I mean, this is a very expert audience on issues of nuclear weapons, denuclearization, nonproliferation.
I mean, there clearly are steps that we all know that one needs to go through, from a—you know, from a freeze, to a verifiably declaration, to disablement, to a dismantlement, most broadly. So we know what those look like and we know that there are capable negotiators who could do that. But it’s not the sort of thing that the president of the United States can negotiate on his or her own, and certainly not in a summit with a leader who—with which the United States does not have diplomatic relations and has never met with before at this level.
LAIPSON: But I thought you sort of captured the paradox earlier, when you said that the great achievement of this third generation Kim leader is that he’s meeting the president on his terms, which is as a nuclear power.
CHA: That is certainly his view, yeah.
LAIPSON: So how do you—so that there’s a—there’s a disconnect between the strategic objective of the negotiations his status. Why would he, even if he’s invoking his father and his grandfather as wanting to denuclearize, he has in fact achieved status in the international system by going a very different route.
CHA: Right. And it’s never that—in any negotiation, it’s never that the two sides come in and they agree on exactly the same thing. There’s always some space there. And that’s what diplomats do. They try to close that space. They try to finesse that space. But I just wonder if they space is just—if this is not just a small space; this is a gaping valley.
LAIPSON: Yeah. Yeah. (Laughs.)
MULLEN: If I could just—
LAIPSON: Yes, please.
MULLEN: And there are historians in the room that will understand this better than I, but it is eerie to me that Kim Jong-un has been able, through his own means, to in some way reflect what his grandfather was able to do, you know, in the early ’50s, late ’40s and early ’50s, which is bring these great powers together and—to figure out what action was going to be taken. In the case of his grandfather, obviously, to bring them together and essentially ignite a conflict that brought them both there. And so I’m also—and just the comparison to me, and I’m sure there are things that don’t compare, is bothersome and scary, from one perspective.
The other is, Kim Jong-un is 30-you pick a number—under 35—32, 33. And I do worry when the stakes are so high how much wisdom is actually going to be in the room. And wisdom isn’t—(laughter)—wisdom isn’t something that you just—you just reach out and obtain as a 30-something, back to outcomes here and the seriousness of obviously this entire effort.
And the third piece, that we haven’t mentioned, who seems to be playing more and more—and, again, it’s just more uncertainty. And I’ve asked in recent years when I’ve made trips out in that part of the world to either China or Japan or South Korea, is what’s Russia up to? And Russia’s been pretty quiet, until recently. And now Russia is back in the game. This used to be a very important place for the Russian Navy. I mean, I have that experience, but certainly because that—they were—they were very dominant out there. And so they’re playing again. And it’s hard to—hard to know—and I have no information whatsoever on how, you know, Mr. Putin’s going to play in all this as well.
LAIPSON: Good point. Thank you.
Well, we’re now ready to turn to our members and our guests today. We’re going to ask you to please stand when you get the microphone, give us your name and your affiliation. And we are—just a reminder to everybody—we are on the record. We’re being recorded by multiple news services.
So let’s begin. Barry Blechman, please.
Q: Thank you. Barry Blechman, Stimson Center.
I think it’s May 11 or 12 the president is required to make a decision about re-imposing sanctions in Iran that were lifted for the nuclear agreement. By everything he’s said, his national security advisor has said, and the secretary of state nominee has said, he’s like to do that—reimpose the sanctions. Will that have any effect on North Korea’s willingness to move toward denuclearization? Or, vice versa, will concern about that lead the administration to do something more sensible on May 11th?
MULLEN: That’s a statement, isn’t it, Barry? (Laughter.) I mean, one of the very clear things—first things I can remember Kim Jong-un saying, you know, was talking about Gadhafi. You know, he gave up his weapons and how did that work out? It’s so—there’s so much uncertainty right now between now and these two big things that we’ve talked about, it’s just hard to know. And you’ve got certainly one new player. You know, John Bolton takes over—has taken over today. Whether Mr. Pompeo will be in place by then is, I think, somewhat up in the air. I just don’t know. But it’s hard for me to believe that just—that it won’t—that it won’t have an impact, that it won’t be related in terms of how whatever happens on May 11th tied to things that may or may not happen in these negotiations long term.
That should also, I think, to some degree be informed by the Korean summit, which happens, I think, before that. So I mean, I just don’t know. I mean, I think—and I’m one who supported the Iran agreement. It has its flaws, but it also has its strengths. And the downside of moving out of that in terms of Iran’s ability to bring a nuclear weapon forward—and we forget how rapidly they are able to move their technology. That’s a huge concern I have. And then the knock-on effects for other countries in the region that I talked about earlier is part of this as well. And I don’t know how Kim Jong-un and his advisors wouldn’t be paying a lot of attention to that as well. And actually, I mean, it probably could work in the other direction in a constructive way in terms of us staying with that, and that Kim Jong-un might be able to think he can make a deal. I’m just not sure.
CHA: So can I just offer a slight addendum to that?
CHA: So I don’t—I mean, as both Mike and Ellen do, I have no idea what the administration will do on Iran. And there—you know, there are a number of different arguments related specifically to the Iran piece. Let me just say on the North Korea side, let me just offer a thought that I had—a personal thought that I has to how it would—it could affect the negotiation with North Korea, in a way that we don’t normally think about. But if we try, a I have tried, to think like we think the president thinks—(laughter)—it’s entirely conceivable that he might see a pulling out of the Iran agreement as a way to put even more pressure on the North Koreans by saying even an Iran deal is not good enough, right? I’m not—I’m not even accepting that. Like, you have to go further than the Iran deal, even as he is sanctioning 100 percent of North Korea’s trade.
So, yes, it’s entirely possible the North Koreans could look at that and say: Well, if he’s not even going to do that, why should we bother negotiating? But, again, to try to understand it from the other side, I would guess that there are people who believe that’s actually a way to put more pressure on the North Koreans.
LAIPSON: The woman in the back, please, standing. Mmm hmm.
Q: Hi. My name is Seo-Yeon Kim (sp) from Radio Free Asia.
I have a question regarding the coming summit between the U.S. and North Kora, specifically about the location and timing because we—you know, over the week, we—several news reported that, you know, Kim Jong-un, you know, delivered his message that he’s willing to discuss the denuclearization. So, but, you know, there is no report that, you know, where or even around when. We just know that it could be the end of May. And some says it’s because Kim Jong-un invites, you know, Trump, so Pyongyang should be the location for the summit. But some says there should be a lot of opponents, you know, from U.S. side. So there could be the third country or the other, you know—
LAIPSON: So what is your question?
Q: Oh, so, where—I want to know, like, where the speakers should think the location should be, and also, like, I believe that it would take some time to tight the security. So, like, once the location is confirmed, then how long it will take to specify—to finalized the date.
LAIPSON: Thank you.
CHA: So we actually know where it is, but we’re not going to tell you. (Laughter.) No, we have—no one has any idea where it’s going to be. I can’t imagine that the U.S. president would go to North Korea. I just can’t imagine that. But aside from that, we have no idea. And, yes, it takes—every minute of a summit is choreographed—like, every minute. And so that the challenge is, as you can imagine, trying to coordinate this with a country with which we have no diplomatic relations are formidable, so.
MULLEN: Maybe that’s a better way to get at it, is just start eliminating those—
LAIPSON: Places that it won’t be. (Laughter.)
MULLEN: —that it can’t be, and you’ll get down to a few. I was taking—I think it was—was it Mongolia that said today that, you know, he’d be happy to host it as well. What that says to me is it just reinforces nobody knows yet, that we’re still looking. And I think they’ll figure that out.
LAIPSON: On the aisle, on this side. Ah, Jim Dobbins.
Q: Jim Dobbins, yeah.
So we don’t know how many nuclear weapons North Korea has. And we don’t know where they are. Which suggests that an agreement to fully denuclearize can’t be reliably verified in all of its aspects. So could you comment on the difficulties and downsides of concluding an agreement that you know you can’t fully verify?
MULLEN: Well, even before the verification requirement they have a pretty rich history of lying about what they’re going to do after every other time we got some version of close. So I think we have to go in from that—from a verification standpoint, with our eyes wide open in that regard. One of the reasons I supported the agreement with Iran is because I sat down with the technical side, and it is a brutally specific technical verification regime. And as I’ve thought about what do you do in the North—North Korea, I think it has to—it has to meet that standard. Can you generate that in North Korea? That’s one of the challenges. And obviously it would be up to whether there is any kind of sea change from the perspective of the leadership in North Korea in terms of their future. But I worry. I worry about the Iranian agreement now from the standpoint is, you know, are they—are they cheating because they’ve done it in the past? I would have the same concern with North Korea.
CHA: Yeah, the only thing I would add to that is that in the last agreement, the six-party agreement, this is where it all eventually broke down, because they provided—we were at the point where they provided a declaration. And that declaration was clearly not a declaration of all of their capabilities that would then have to be verified. And so this is going to be—this is clearly going to be one of the biggest obstacles, if we even get that far, in some sort of—in some sort of negotiation with them on the weapons, and on the materials.
MULLEN: But, Jim, there are technical means now that clearly we didn’t have 10 years ago and 20 years ago. The question is, can you—can you put it in play in a way that would allow us to be much more comfortable from a verification standpoint.
CHA: And then the other thing I would add is that—I mean, and I—I mean, I know we’re being recorded, and if I’m offending North Koreans I’m sorry, but there’s a human capacity—there’s a human capital problem here. I mean, the Iran agreement is hundreds of pages, right? And the agreement we negotiated in 2005-2007 was, like, 12 double-spaced pages, if that. And it had none of the technical things that are discussed in the Iran agreement. So even something along those lines, I wonder whether they have the technical capacity to negotiate an agreement like that.
LAIPSON: The second row.
Q: Lloyd Hand, King & Spalding.
You mentioned earlier, Mr. Cha, the importance—overall importance of maintaining our security relations with South Korea and Japan. One concept that’s been floated and discussed somewhat in these kinds of forums has been China providing the nuclear umbrella for assuring denuclearization of the peninsula. What do you think about that as a possibility as an outcome of these discussions?
MULLEN: China providing the nuclear umbrella for the entire peninsula? I’d have a hard time with that up front. (Laughter.) I mean, when you ask that question, Lloyd, one of the things I think of that we’re not very good at is trying to put ourselves in China’s shoes and what their interests are here, even though we can sort of tick them off. You know, is there a way that we can figure out in these negotiations, assuming they happen, to respect some of their national interests, because they don’t trust us and we don’t trust them. So the concern they have with respect to instability, the concern they have with the unification piece, the regime—the potential for regime change. I would be—the U.S. is nominally—has historically been tasked with securing the nuclear material. I’d be—I’d be happy camper to have China go do that. I’m not sure I’d—I’m willing at this point to have China provide the nuclear umbrella, although—yeah, maybe I’m missing something here, and certainly might be willing to talk about that. But I think that’s a—
Q: In lieu—that’s a former member of the National Security Council’s idea that they floated, not in lieu of the U.S. umbrella for South Korea, but for North Korea for sure. So the U.S. provides as it is now Japan and South Korea, and China for North Korea.
MULLEN: And I think that that’s a little different—at least, my understanding’s a little different now. Certainly, I think that would be worthwhile to discuss. I’d have no—I think China’s interests here are big, as ours are. And we have to take them into consideration if we’re ever going to make any progress on that peninsula.
LAIPSON: Do you want to comment on this?
CHA: I’ll just say that I think the—historically the Chinese have a mutual treaty of friendship with North Korea that for the duration of the Cold War was seen as China’s defense commitment to North Korea. It was never clear whether that included a nuclear umbrella. Probably it didn’t. As far as I know, China has not extended its nuclear umbrella to any other—any other country. The other thing is that the—I mean, the North Koreans and the Chinese are—they share a border and they have fought in a war together, but they do not like each other. The North Koreans feel like the Chinese treat them like a dirt-poor province. And the Chinese can’t stand that the North Koreans do things that drag China through the mud all the time. So there’s not a lot of love between these two countries, let alone trust. Certainly not at all like the sort of defense commitment and nuclear umbrella that the United States provides to the—to the ROK.
LAIPSON: The woman in the corridor in the back in the dark suit? Yes. Can you bring her the mic?
Q: Hello. Eunjung Cho with the Voice of America.
Dr. Cha mentioned that the difficult question would be what the U.S. is willing to offer to North Korea. And Admiral Mullen also said that to prevent nuclear war he is willing to trade off any trade areas to stop the nuclear war. So my question is, should North Korea commit to the denuclearization, is the pullout of the U.S. troops from South Korea, a pull out of nuclear umbrella from South Korea, is it worthwhile considering for the United States? Thank you.
MULLEN: That’s always a fun question to answer. (Laughter.) Long term, obviously, if we’re able to sort through the security issues in our region, and in particular with our allies both South Korea and Japan, and if we are at a point where the possibility of conflict, if you will, has diminished dramatically, I’d certainly be willing to have a discussion about how long the U.S. troops should stay there and how many of them should be there. But I’ve also dealt enough with the peninsula is those—that 28—the 28,500 troops that are on the peninsula now in the South, they don’t actually do this, but when you move 10 of them they know almost before I knew that they were moving off the peninsula. It is an unbelievable strong strategic commitment on the part of the United States of America to the security of the South Korean people. So it is not anything that could happen quickly.
CHA: I’m fine with that answer. (Laughter.)
MULLEN: Thanks. (Laughs.)
LAIPSON: All right. Mitzi and then Roberta, and then we’ll go to the back of the room. We’ll get you next. OK.
Q: I’m Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School.
This has been a really enlightening discussion. I have a very mundane question. Where would these nuclear weapons go to die out? I mean, we have trouble thinking about putting our nuclear stuff into the Colorado mountains. Is there a place where this is—they obviously can go?
MULLEN: Yes, there is. I don’t know. I want to have that problem. (Laughter.)
LAIPSON: Roberta. Roberta’s next.
Q: Roberta Cohen. I was a member of the Task Force of the Council on Foreign Relations.
MULLEN: Hi, Roberta.
Q: Hi. Hi. And you know what I’m going to ask you: human rights. (Laughter.)
MULLEN: Rightfully so.
Q: OK. Well, when the task force met and the report was developed, there was a general consensus that human rights issues should be integrated in some way when there are discussions with the North Koreans, either parallel talks or involved in an overall agenda. I wonder how you see that now. There are two summits coming up, and there’s a lot of sense that, well, the North Korean are ready to talk about denuclearization, which is tremendous. They haven’t said we’re ready to talk about and willing to talk about human rights. But where will the U.S., where should South Korea be putting this, and how much priority should it be given?
MULLEN: Well, I mean, you know where I am on this, Roberta. I think it’s a hugely important part. I don’t think we can stand by and watch the kind of—the kind of actions that Kim Jong-un has taken, as his family has taken for decades, and not say anything and do anything. So obviously you have to prioritize and there might be something that we can use in these negotiations in terms of his trading for something he wants to include, in terms of his trading off the nukes, but also some other things. I mean, it is my sense that this is a leader who wants to be recognized on the world stage, who wants to participate as some version of a normal country. And I think there’s huge opportunities if this goes well to have that kind of impact.
But it’s—sadly, I think where we are in this particular negotiation, it certainly has not appeared to be a part of the discussion. And it needs to be—it needs to be—even if it’s not a part that generates an outcome, it needs to be a position very clearly made inside the negotiations with respect to where we are on human rights. We can never, ever let our guard down on that, the United States, in terms of who we represent, what we represent, and the values that we stand for. And there should never be a doubt in his mind in any interaction that that’s where we are.
CHA: Yeah, I would agree. I mean, it would be very difficult to imagine the leader of the free world meeting with the worst human rights abuser in modern history and not raising the issue. I mean, just even if—even if the—all of the narrative is about nuclear weapons, it just seems inconceivable to me that it would not be raised. So it requires a willingness on our part to raise it. The second is it requires a willingness on the part of the North Koreans to discuss it. And I actually think that they may be more open to discussing it now, if the theory is true that the reason—part of the reason they’re coming to the table is because they’re feeling so much pressure, so much pressure from the global sanctions campaign against them.
Now, it may not be a discussion on human rights that you or I would like to see, having to do with the treatment of the citizenry, the camps, and all these other things. It may be a discussion that they try to shift more towards humanitarian assistance and humanitarian support, food support, vaccinations for their children, things of this nature, which would be their way of trying to get support from the outside world that circumvents the U.N. sanctions regime. So it’s—you know, there’s an ideal way that we should have a discussion with North Korea about human rights, and there’s a practical one. And right now, I think that that’s the most practical avenue, but I have no idea whether the administration will take that—take that view.
LAIPSON: I’m going to go to Michael and then Don Daniels next, and then over to you.
Q: Mike Mosettig, PBS online NewsHour.
A couple of historical points. If he was quoted correctly before he became national—appointed national security advisor, Bolton expressed the expectation or maybe the hope that the summit would fail. Has the U.S. president ever gone into a nuclear negotiation with his national security advisor expressing the hope that it would fail? (Laughter.) And on your point, Victor, that all summits are choregraphed, I don’t think the 1961 Vienna summit was choregraphed for Khrushchev’s rants against Kennedy, and Kennedy’s inability to—or Kennedy’s almost desire to get into a debate with him.
MULLEN: So, actually, my reaction on the Bolton—from the Bolton perspective, or the question about Bolton, is sometimes your perspective changes a whole lot when you now have a real job. (Laughter.) And sometimes it doesn’t, but I think, you know, you are sobered by the reality of the responsibility. That’s one. And secondly, John Bolton isn’t president of the United States. He is working for the president of the United States. So whatever happens, in the outcome of this is going to be tied to, and the responsibility of and credit for or against, is going to be the president. I actually believe that. That doesn’t mean Bolton won’t have influence and all those kinds of things. He will be living with his rhetoric, I think, for a long time because there’s a lot of it, but there’s a reality—(laughter)—but there’s a reality of the job which he—you know, that is very sobering, across many, many challenges.
CHA: So can I just say on—so on—and, again, I’m looking around the room for people who were involved with this. So the last time that Bolton was in government was as undersecretary. And the two things he cared about most on the North Korea issue was counterproliferation, the creation of PSI, the Proliferation Security Initiative, and the sanctions campaign, something we called defensive measures at the time, to get at North Korea’s proliferation financing through counterfeiting, drug running, things of that nature. So my guess—and, again, he’s the national security advisor, he’s not president—is that he will not stand in the way if the president wants to do this meeting. He’s not going to stand in the way. But he will, I think, be very firm on continuing to maintain the sanctions pressure, and building that counterproliferation regime, because those are two key pieces that will be part of any strategy, whether the summit fails or succeeds.
LAIPSON: OK. So let’s go quickly—if you can keep your questions really short—so we’ve got Don Daniels, then you, then Barbara Slavin, and then might have time for one more.
Q: Yeah. Don Daniels, Georgetown University.
What happens if this doesn’t work at all? You know, so maybe there is no summit or the summit goes south or whatever? You know, how do we think about what the options are there? And for the U.S., for instance, could we eventually settle for extended deterrence and say, OK, it’s going on, we can’t do anything about it, and we’re going to settle for this—you know, for extended deterrence?
MULLEN: No, I mean, I think certainly that is a possibility. I think if it doesn’t—if it doesn’t work, we’ll see, you know, both countries and those others who are associated with this explaining it—explaining it politically why it didn’t work, and most likely blaming somebody else for that outcome. I worry then we’re sort of tied back to recent rhetoric. And if Kim Jong-un—and I think the empirical evidence is correct that he clearly has stopped his testing program. If he starts again, then I don’t think we’re very far from where we were a few weeks ago, which isn’t very far from conflict. That’s my view. And so that gets back to the states that are in play here, from my perspective, with this summit.
Q: Hi. Dan Bob with Sasakawa USA.
This seems like sort of a minor issue, but the Japanese prime minister—you both talked about how important it is for working with allies. Japanese prime minister will be here soon. And one of the things he’s going to bring up with the president are the 17 abductees that North Korea has kidnapped. It seems like a minor issue, but it’s something that the prime minister came to prominence as a result of. His political fortunes are not so great. There are delegations of the families who are coming over here soon as well. How do you deal with that issue? It seems like you can’t sweep it under the rug?
LAIPSON: Thank you. Can we just grab Barbara’s question and then final thoughts?
Q: Yeah. Thanks. Barbara Slavin. Nice to see you both again.
MULLEN: Hi, Barbara.
Q: OK. So Trump doesn’t like squishy outcomes. He’s talked about kicking the can down the road and how frustrating that is. So what is the least that could come out of this that he could declare victory over? I mean, would it be enough to go back to the 2005-2006 statement? Could he beat his chest and say that’s a huge victory? I’m just—I’m having trouble envisioning something coming out of the summit that he could clearly call a win.
LAIPSON: Thank you.
CHA: So starting with the question about Japan, yeah, I mean, this is politically a very important issue for Prime Minister Abe. I’m sure he will lead with this when he comes to Mar-a-Lago next week. Yeah. At the same time, though, the United States has its own three detainees still in North Korea that hopefully will be let go. And as you know well, Dan, the even bigger issue for Japan from a strategic perspective, is if we’re going to talk about ballistic missiles on the Korean Peninsula, our concerns are the long-range ballistic missiles—prototype long-range ballistic missiles. And Japan’s concerns are the shorter-range, already deployed, ballistic missiles. So there’s a danger of decoupling there that I’m sure the allies will try to—a difference they will try to narrow.
On what constitutes a successful—you know, it’s a great question. It’s not an easy one to answer. I entirely agree with you that this president doesn’t like failure, or he doesn’t like to look like he has failed. So that may incentivize him to make some very big statements at this—at this summit. Very big statements about peace, peace treaty, normalization, denuclearization, things of that nature, and then hand it off to people like you in the audience to negotiate the rest of it for the next two years. So it could be something like that. But I do believe that as we get closer to this meeting, all the parties involved—even the ones that are not involved—are going to have a vested interest in not seeing it fail, for the very reason that the admiral talked about, because on the other side of the failure of a summit with an adversary there’s not a lot of space left in terms of diplomacy. But it may be some big, flowery statements. And the promise of a negotiation process.
LAIPSON: Any final thought?
MULLEN: I thought that was brilliant. (Laughter.)
LAIPSON: So a way to end sort of this. (Laughs.) Unfortunately, we’ve run out of time. I want to thank the Warnke’s for their participation, all of the members of the Council for your participation, and our wonderful speakers. (Applause.)